Portland found a novel approach to solving the restaurant crisis. Portland’s worker-owned restaurants offer the best dining in Oregon.
COVID changed everything for restaurants. Many restaurant workers left the industry, and the restaurants that survived had to reevaluate everything. In Portland, a top foodie city in the country, several restaurants took the novel approach of becoming worker-owned restaurants. This is a look at what’s happening today in Portland’s worker-owned restaurants.
The Rise of Restaurant Cooperatives
Co-op business models have historically increased in the wake of social revolutions and financial crises, so it’s no surprise that the pandemic ushered in worker-owned restaurants, especially in progressive Portland.
2021 and 2022 saw the Great Resignation, where millions of workers, especially in the service industry, said enough of low pay and no benefits and simply quit their jobs. Worker-owned restaurants address this with a structure where everyone has a voice, people are valued, and profits are shared.
Tercet, One of Portland’s Worker-Owned Restaurants
Opened in November 2021, Tercet is the only fine dining worker-owned restaurant in Portland. Executive Chef John Conlin, Sous Chef Wyatt van den Berghe, and Sommelier Mike Branton worked together at Roe before it closed due to COVID in 2020. The three, along with Roe’s investor Ben Blank, decided to create Tercet as a co-op. Today the trio are the only staff of the restaurant, but Tercet has set aside ownership shares for the future.
Tercet offers a 10-course tasting menu where 90 percent of the ingredients come from the Portland area, and the menu is thoughtfully paired with wine from Oregon and other top regions worldwide.
With a menu that often changes due to what’s available and the creative whims of the team, Conlin is hard-pressed to name a favorite dish.
Conlin said, “I’m proud of them all, or they wouldn’t be on the menu. Like a poem or symphonic composition, each course has a specific purpose. The goal is to have the whole thing together express time and place.”
Why Go Co-op at Tercet?
As a worker-owned restaurant, Tercet operates differently than any fine dining establishment in the area.
“I don’t have a brigade to fall back on to do each aspect of the work. Finding the time to shell peas and balance the books brings its own challenges. Decisions are made collaboratively by the people who create the experience,” said Conlin.
The team agrees that the pandemic necessitated restaurants’ changes due to financial realities and workers’ changing mentalities.
“The era of big box restaurants whose existence was inextricably dependent upon artificially low wages has ended. As an emboldened workforce rightfully demands better pay and working conditions, restaurateurs opt to have fewer (or in our case, zero) employees, sharing more of the actual work across the ownership. This is a positive development as it means the most experienced people in the room are cooking and serving you your food,” said van den Berghe.
The Tercet trio’s goal is to turn Tercet into a true fine dining destination in the Pacific Northwest.
Colin said, “I want to mentor and teach as many young cooks as possible. I would love Tercet to become a teaching restaurant. That way I can pass on the knowledge given to me by my mentors. Scratch cooking is a dying craft. Restaurants can be a touchstone for communities to come together. In this age of screens and remote work, hospitality is very personal and human. I want to help that idea continue.”
Offering everything from your morning joe and some of the best pastry in the city to lunch and dinner options focused on pizza and pasta, Café Olli is a true neighborhood café in Northeast Portland with employee ownership.
Café Olli is structured as an Employee-Owned Trust. The pastry chef Siobhan Speirts and Executive Chef Taylor Manning own 50% of the company. The employee trust owns the other 50%. All employees in the trust receive profits.
The eight-month-old restaurant currently has 20 employees. According to Speirts, running the restaurant as a co-op requires a huge learning curve. However, everyone is working harder than normal. This is eliminating kitchen nightmare stereotypes and creating genuine relationships and friendships amongst the team. Everyone knows where the restaurant stands financially. The team makes decisions collectively, and the books are open to everyone.
Speirts said, “After the way COVID devastated our industry, it feels like a chance to start from scratch and do things the way they should be done. Portland is a fairly progressive city, so it makes sense that something like this would be happening here and starting to (hopefully) gain traction.”
One thing I love about Portland is that you can travel the world one plate at a time. Nearly every city has French or Italian cuisine, but in Portland the sheer number of ethnic eats you can get is something I haven’t seen outside New York.
Mirisata brings vegan Sri Lankan cuisine to Rose City with its worker-owned cooperative. Currently, the restaurant has seven workers, four of which are Sri Lankan and bring their family recipes to the table.
In Sri Lanka, rice and curry are staples and Mirisata offers a daily rice and curry menu that could include delicacies like tempered banana peppers or deviled sweet potatoes. In addition, they offer a menu of Sri Lankan street food eats like Parippu Vade fritters and a line-up of Roti.
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Moving Forward with Worker-Owned Restaurants
Portland’s worker-owned restaurants are test kitchens for the restaurant industry. This new egalitarian structure could be just the thing to lure talent back to restaurants and ensure that great foodie experiences continue for travelers who love tasting the heart and soul of a city through its food. When you travel throughout the Pacific Northwest, consider some of our favorite restaurants. After a great meal, be sure to see our favorite things to do in and around Portland.